Belgian Royal delegation visits the Afrigen facilities where Univercells and etherna will be supporting the development of the first African-owned mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
CAPE TOWN (SOUTH AFRICA) & BRUSSELS (BELGIUM), MARCH 25, 2023 – HM King Philippe and HM Queen Mathilde, currently on a state visit to South Africa until March 27, visited the Afrigen Biologics facility in Cape Town to learn more about how two Belgian companies, Univercells and etherna, are supporting the development of the first African- developed mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. The King and The Queen are accompanied by five ministers of federal and regional governments, as well as a business delegation including several Belgian companies. The intention is to further discuss cooperation and partnership between the two countries and focus, among other things, on business and development.
Given the strong commitment from Belgium and the European Union towards supporting regional production autonomy in the region, and the fact that the mRNA Technology Transfer Program co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), is at the epicenter of this global effort, the Royal delegation made it a point to include a visit to Afrigen as part of their stay.
Quantoom Biosciences, a Univercells’ company, is leading the development of the mRNA production technology that encompasses all the steps of RNA production, from sequence construct to large scale production, allowing for rapid growth and scale-up. Dramatically more efficient than existing methods, it was built with distributed and de-centralized manufacturing in mind – ensuring that processes can be easily transferred across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Today, the project has delivered exceptional results based on the analytical characterization proven to be compliant to Critical Quality Attributes (CQA) specifications, allowing the company to transfer its process to Afrigen.
Afrigen and Univercells are supported in the collaboration by mRNA expert development partner etherna. The company has enabled the development of the RNA production equipment and developed a thermostable COVID-19 vaccine and platform which enables distribution across the continent to even the remotest rural communities, an essential part of the collaboration, and is sharing the way this LNP formulation needs to be produced.
It is in this context that the King and the Queen decided to visit Afrigen and meet both Belgian companies and South African partners who are working together for the development of this milestone vaccine.
The Afrigen guided tour started in the production area, followed by the R&D department and laboratories. As part of the tour, each partner provided the delegation with an update on their involvement and the status of work.
As they were passing by the R&D facilities, Bernard Sagaert, interim Chief Executive Officer of etherna, explained how the project is benefiting from etherna’s technologies, at multiple levels and stages: “We are delighted to partner with Univercells and Afrigen Biologics on this important project by providing expert support and knowhow in all the key areas of mRNA vaccine development. The resulting vaccines validates our integrated approach using our unique skillset – from optimizing RNA payload, through formulation of the lipid nanoparticle delivery system to enhancing thermostability for mass manufacturing. This will allow for storage in normal fridges which are more accessible than -20 or -80°C freezers, especially in LMICs and significantly improve the prospects of making vaccines more accessible globally.”
José Castillo, co-founder of Univercells Group and CEO of Quantoom Biosciences continued: “Almost one year after signing the agreement we are thrilled to be back at Afrigen and meet all partners to discussion the progress and project deliverables. Over the last months, three batched of RNA were produced and Quantoom’s NtensifyTM midi system will be delivered at Afrigen within the next weeks.”
Petro Terblanche, Afrigen Chief Executive Officer, declared: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there is a pressing need to build sustainable capabilities in vaccine development and manufacturing in African and other LMICs. I am thrilled to see how the project is moving forward bringing cutting edge technology to Afrigen to integrate into the technology and manufacturing platforms we are building and transferring to partners in Africa and other LMICs. This is driven by our quest for enabling access to life-saving vaccines and medicines for the people living in the global South.”
Charles Gore, Medicines Patent Pool, added: “Since the start of the mRNA Technology Transfer Program in June 2021, it is impressive to see the amazing developments here at Afrigen and all that has been achieved in mRNA vaccine development. None of it would have been possible without the Program funders, and I particularly want to thank the Kingdom of Belgium for their support from the outset of the project. ”
Dr Owen Kaluwa, World Health Organization, concluded: “ The mRNA Technology Transfer Program is built on partnerships and working closely will leading technologies and experts is essential. Through this cutting-edge technology that has been developed with LMICs in mind, and that provides an inclusive solution, Afrigen with the support of Quantoom and etherna can ow move rapidly to the next phase of mRNA vaccine development. It is still WHO firm belief that a more widely distributed access to technologies and vaccine manufacturing capacity will reduce the gap in making vaccines available promptly for everyone, everywhere and accelerates the impact of the necessary collective effort to control outbreaks.”
Next steps include receiving the Quantoom’s NtensifyTM midi system in Afrigen, and etherna’s proprietary lipid to enable Afrigen to replicate the production of mRNA drug substance and drug product according to Quantoom and etherna’s processes, respectively.